Poems

Elegy with Bats

                                   Austin, Texas

 

They poured out from under the Congress Street Bridge

as twilight came on, first a few, then like a dam bursting

 

dark figures plumed through a darkening sky,

bits of ash billowing up—to thousand the air,

 

as Dante would say—like memories of our sister

swirling around us.  She too had darkened in the last years,

 

so we strained to recall all of who she was,

her quick mind, her fearless missions, fierce beliefs,

 

teacher and human shield—before stroke stole her thought,

and she became for us not unlike the bats, half-seen,

 

swarming in jittery clouds.   My sister, so quick

to fix a problem, fluent in Kierkegaard, Sartre,

 

Spanish and French, on her last visit had shrunk down

to opinion’s endless sputter of self,

 

wanting the last piece of toast, first cup of wine,

the talk focused on her, annoyed by a tree out front,

 

insulted by sunflowers next door.  Stupid, stupid, stupid,

she stomped past those bright yellow petals, bonnets

 

brimming each round face.  She hated the ones slumped

like dying Christs on their stems.

 

Pathetic! she said, as if anger were the last ember of self,

now without sonar, flitting, aimless, amok—

 

until at the end, my niece said, she was silent, her gaze fixed

on some unknown world no one else could see

 

any more than on that bridge, as the bats dispersed

into the deepening night, we could discern

 

when the last one had flown.  Still, we lingered,

our eyes adjusting to shades, densities of dark,

 

as if we could see where a last breath, a life goes,

a soul cut loose from the body’s tether.

 

We stood in a crowd of others, locals and visitors

like ourselves, lingering in the summer night,

 

the heat of the day finally gone down with the sun,

which had, I reminded myself, not gone down at all.

 

It was earth that turned.  And there, on the bridge,

the crowd thinning, I had to grasp the rail for balance,

 

as the thought filled me: the earth actually spins

day after day in space, no visible string, no pedestal,

 

or base to hold us, nothing but that turning,

and the weight, the sweet pull of other celestial bodies.

 

Heritage

Our grandfather, had he still legs, would be here

on the shore in Point Pleasant, New Jersey,

photographing footprints in dunes.  Had he a mouth,

 

he’d make a joke and laugh.  Had he ever sat with us,

he might have named the stolen horses that rode

our family across the channel, Cork to Scotland,

 

and then to the North, newly sober and starched.

We might know what ships and when and why to America.

Likewise, my grandmother, had she still hair to unpin

 

in our presence, might have softened her face,

and had she walked with us along the shore, might have

named the shells we loaded into sagging swim caps.

 

As to our father, had he lived into the 1960s,

into Bull Connor and police dogs, might he have rewritten

the letters disparaging all colors and faiths not his own?

 

Knowing our family heart, its failure and early blight,

can we at least hope that between clutch and stop, death

had time to work—death’s horses and ships, its lenses,

 

hairpins, its hammers and lathes, its endless waves

out there in the North Atlantic, making the water rise

and fall in place, until where we stand near shore

 

it snags, tumbles, throws itself like dice, like bones,

boxcars, snake eyes, chips of quahog, moon snail, tar

aswirl at our feet, tugging the sand out from under.

Betsy Sholl

www.betsysholl.com/

Betsy Sholl served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  Her eighth collection, Otherwise Unseeable (University of Wisconsin), won the 2015 Maine Literary Aware for poetry. Recent work has appeared in Image, Field, Numéro Cinq, Upstreet, Poet Lore, Plume.  She teaches in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Portland, Maine.